George Osborne dropped a few surprises into his speech to the Tory party conference here in Birmingham this lunchtime.
Firstly, he told a couple of jokes that were delivered with precision — in the first, referring to his warm-up man, Mark & Spencer’s Stuart Rose, he said it was a shame the previous government wasn’t a bit more like M&S because then we could have “returned the goods and got our money back”. (On reflection I’m not even sure that makes any sense but the Symphony Hall audience roared with approval.)
Secondly, he restricted himself to just two references to his own catch phrase (“We’re all in this togehter”), remembering right at the last that this year’s slogan — brought to life by an on-stage, metalic sculpture, projected onto a screen behind him, and enscribed on to a placeholder on the very podium from which he spoke — was “Together in the National Interest”. (An extension of the new slogan is a reworking of the Party’s logo — no longer a green tree but a Union Flag that looks like a patriotic Mr Messy on a stump).
The final surprise was Osborne’s description of himself as a “one-nation Tory”. It was his riposte to those who say the cuts programme is ideologically-driven. “I do have a particular view of the state,” he said. “I believe in public services: that modern government exists not just to provide resolute security at home and abroad, but also to provide the best in education and healthcare, and support for the Big Society. This is at the heart of my one nation conservativism.”
It was not entirely clear how many other one-nation Tories there were in the hall: the cheers that followed his promise to limit benefits were in notable contrast to the less-than-polite applause that met his half-hearted vow not to “tolerate tax evasion”.
Osborne’s drift into meaningless platitudes towards the end of this speech (“Let it be a hopeful country, because we are governed by imagination” and so on), brought home how “content rich” the rest was.
We had the trailed cap on Child Benefit (saving an estimated £1bn a year) followed by the cap on household benefits (Osborne’s team believe there are 50,000 people earning more than the average working family).
The latter announcement played well in the hall, as did Osborne’s rather convulted Miliband-bashing joke. Referring to his working relationship with the Business Secretary Vince Cable, he said:
“People said we wouldn’t get on, that we’d trade cruel nicknames, that we would knife each other in the back, that we’d try to end each others’ careers.
“Who do they think we are? Brothers?”